RSU 9 school board to review $35.3 million budget

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FARMINGTON – Regional School Unit 9 school board directors got their first look at a preliminarily proposed, $35.3 million budget Tuesday evening, as well as reorganizing the budget workshop schedule.

While the board had previously planned to meet on Tuesdays up through the annual budget meeting on May 1, directors are now planning to meet on Tuesday, March 27; Thursday, March 29; Tuesday, April 3; and tentatively plan to approve set the proposed budget on Thursday, April 5. Residents would vote on the proposed budget at the annual meeting on May 1 and the budget referendum would be May 15. Copies of the budget are available at each board meeting, and people can request copies through the RSU 9 central office.

The initial budget proposed by the administration currently includes $35,323,317 in proposed expenditures, an increase of $1.69 million over the current fiscal year. If approved as presented, that would represent a 5.01 percent increase in expenditures.

Of the $35.3 million, roughly $13 million would be paid through local tax assessments. The majority of the budget, $21 million, would be covered by the state allocation. Another $1.3 million would be covered by other sources, ranging from federal funds to a private donation.

The budget would result in a $562,654 increase in the local assessment, spread among all 10 towns in accordance with their valuations. Wilton and Temple would see minor decreases in their assessments, while the other eight towns would see increases.

The combined percentage change in local assessments would be a combined increase of 4.49 percent. Superintendent Tom Ward noted that the proposed increase followed two years of combined decreases of slightly more than 2 percent, with the $13 million in local assessments coming in slightly less than the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Major increases in revenue include $750,000 in additional funds through the state allocation, as part of the second year of the bi-annual state budget. The state is also raising the educational mill rate, the amount of money towns must raise to acquire full funding through the state’s Essential Programs and Services funding model, from 8.1 to 8.5. That will require the district towns to raise an additional $588,000 to cover the Local Required Contribution to EPS.

The Additional Local Allocation, money raised beyond EPS to support RSU 9 programs, would also increase by $56,000 to $1.68 million. Another local-only expenditure, Local Debt, would be decreasing by $82,000 down to $608,000 annually.

Ward noted that while the district was receiving additional funds from the state, it also was educating more students. RSU 9 had picked up 75 additional students in the past year; the state wouldn’t be recognizing those new students for funding until the 2019-2020 budget process.

The budget includes expenditures covered by $288,000 in funds donated by Richard Bjorn to benefit Foster Career & Technology Center programming, as well as another $181,000 in additional revenue from the state relating to vocational programming. The state intends to support Career & Technical programming through the EPS formula, which has resulted in RSU 9 receiving additional money.

Those expenditures, while not directly related to the local assessment, still needed to be included in the budget, Ward noted.

A major new expenditure relates to a new alternative program for non-regulated elementary students. Administrators, educators and board directors have been discussing the problem over the past few years, with teacher reporting student behavior that ranges from verbal to physical disruptions of classrooms, to outright attempts to push, bite or kick staff members. The students, who in addition to struggling academically themselves, often make it more difficult for their peers to learn as well, do not qualify for Special Education funding.

Roughly $300,000 is in the 2018-19 proposed budget to create the program, Ward said. Those funds would include the hiring of a program teacher, three Ed Techs as well as contracts with a social worker and an analyst. The program would also purchase a used vehicle and hire a driver, as the all of the qualifying elementary students would be transported to a single location. Ward said that the program, which was originally budgeted in excess of $600,000, would save money by utilizing outside agencies, MaineCare and other insurance providers to bring in the majority of the social worker assistance.

Ward broke down the budget percentage increase into categories, beginning with the 5.01 percent total increase. Without the Bjorn donation, the increase would be 4.61 percent. Without the alternative elementary program, the increase would be 3.21 percent, Ward said. Of that increase, roughly 2.5 percent represented contracted pay raises and other built-in increases.

Administrators cut roughly $236,000 in budget needs prior to sending it to the board. Also not included was funds for a third-grade teacher at Cascade Brook School. The four existing teachers at that grade level read a letter to the board Tuesday, noting they had 99 students in their 2017 grade level, or 25 to 26 students per class. The incoming class is currently 92 students, but that number often rises after school begins.

The board is paying two Ed Techs to assist the four teachers; one recommendation was to eliminate those positions and add another elementary teacher. A total of $52,000 would be budgeted for that addition, including estimated salary and benefits.

Ward noted that the budget included a 5 percent increase in health insurance; it will learn in April if that placeholder figure can come down. There may also be savings in fuel and heating oil lines, he said, depending on the market.

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